It was the best mesquite-crusted salmon I ever had. Partly because someone else was paying for it. But mostly because I wasn't paying for it. And then, just like that, my free lunch wasn't so free.
"You want me to do what?" I asked, with a piece of blackened fish in my mouth.
"We want you to try stand-up comedy and write a story about it," said Satan.
"At the sound of the tone, please leave your name and number," I replied.
"Come on, it'll be fun," he urged. "People will love to hear about your experience."
I paused, took another bite and asked, "So, when you say you want me to try stand-up comedy, you mean...?"
"I mean, you standing on a stage with a light shining on your sweaty face while a crowd of people are staring at you and you're trying to make them laugh. It'll be terrific — especially if you bomb."
"You're an inspirational leader of the highest order," I observed.
"See, you're already being funny."
"This has got disaster written all over it," I said.
"I know," he nodded. "It'll be great."
"I don't think I can do this."
"Yes, you can."
"No, I really can't," I persisted.
"Are you sure?"
"Gee, that's too bad," he sighed. Then, he turned to our waiter. "Separate checks, please."
I turned to our waiter. "Actually, one check is fine, sir," I said.
I looked at the evil man sitting across the table.
"So, have you heard the one about the two rabbis and the laughing hyena?"
"I knew you'd see things my way," he smirked.
The thing is, I hated myself for accepting public humiliation over a piece of free salmon.
But I kind of got over it when he said I could have dessert, too.
The Funny Guy
I knew I needed professional help. My newfound mentor was Marc Jaffe.
Not only has Jaffe done stand-up, he's also written for some pretty well-known comics: Gary Shandling, Paul Reiser and some guy named Seinfeld, to name a few.
"The good news is, there's really no reason to be nervous," he said. "They're not paying you, so they can't really fire you. The bad news is, you're going to be completely judged in the first 30 seconds."
"So it's a lot like high school," I noted.
"Considering this is your first time, I'd say if you can even get one good laugh, you'll be doing well," he said.
"Theoretically then, if they laugh at one joke, I should just keep repeating it, right?"
"It's also important to learn how to segue in your routine," he continued. "You can't just jump from one subject to another. You need to have a flow. For example, you could say, 'Speaking of sleeping, I was at work the other day when...' "
"I think I get it," I said. "You mean something like, 'Speaking of comedy, thanks for writing some material for me, Marc.' "
"See, you're already being funny."
As I shook his hand and thanked him for his help, he added, "Remember, if you want to be great, people have to know who you are and what your point of view is."
I walked to my car, wondering who I was and wishing I had a point of view.
The Funny Teacher
I knew I still needed more help. My newfound teacher was Dave Schwensen.
Schwensen is a former stand-up comic who also booked talent at the Improv in New York and Los Angeles. He's worked with NBC's "The Tonight Show," HBO, Comedy Central and more. Now, Schwensen runs a workshop in Cleveland for aspiring comics.
On my way to his house, I stopped at Borders and bought a book on stand-up comedy. Because those who can, do. Those who can't, read.
"Doing stand-up isn't like acting," advised Schwensen. "There's no wall between you and the audience. You have to be prepared for everything and anything. A heckler. A waitress spilling something."
"Someone throwing large metal objects at me," I said.
"Listen, the best advice I can give you is that when you're up onstage, you're a comic. I don't care who you think you are, you're a comic," he said. "Even if you don't have any confidence, act like you do."
"So it's a lot like high school."
"I also tell all my students they're not just comedians, they're writers," he said. "Keep a pad or tape recorder with you at all times. Observe life. Take notes. Make your humor from real life. That's the funny stuff."
"My kids boss me around. My wife yells at me. I take out the garbage. Is there anything there?" I asked.
"The only other piece of advice I can give you is if you have any books on stand-up comedy, get rid of them," he said. "They're a waste of time. I wrote a book on stand-up, but it's more about the business side of the industry. I'm sure not going to tell you what to say onstage. Why would anyone want to copy what someone else has already done?"
"Tell me you're kidding," I scoffed. "Who would do that? How stupid."
As I left his house, I said, "Thanks, you've been a huge help. Also, please don't go out to my car and look in the backseat for any comedy books, because there aren't any in the backseat next to my coat."
I think he believed me. But I'm not sure.
The Funny Place
Next, I spoke with Lucy Bibbee, marketing director at Hilarities Comedy Club in Cuyahoga Falls.
"Actually, we have an amateur night every Monday night," she said. "Anyone's welcome to come down. You get five minutes onstage to do your thing."
"So, the audience is like, six drunks sitting at the bar watching an Indians game, right?" I asked hopefully.
"Oh no. We usually get a good crowd: 150, 180 people. It's packed."
There was a moment of silence. Or maybe it was two hours.
"Hello?" she asked. "Are you still there?"
"So does anybody fall apart when they get up there?" I whispered. "Just wondering. I mean, for the article."
"Oh, all the time," she replied. "I've seen people throw up onstage. A lot of people just freeze. Sometimes, they'll tell one joke, no one will laugh and they'll walk off. Trust me, I've seen it all."
"Trust me, you haven't," I said.
"So, can I mark you down for next Monday night?"
"Lucy, what's the worst thing you've ever done for a free piece of salmon?"
"I'll take that as a yes," she said.
The Funny Stuff
Show time was five days away and I was almost set.
I had gotten some good advice from a professional comic and a teacher. And I had a date to go onstage. Now, I just needed one more teeny, tiny thing.
After an hour of staring at a blank computer screen, I walked into the family room and said to my wife, "My God, this is so stressful. I think I need a drink."
"You don't drink," she noted.
"Then I need a cigarette."
"You don't smoke."
"Will you please let me know when I develop some sort of unhealthy addictive behavior?" I asked. "Because whatever it is, I need to do it immediately."
An hour later, she walked in and found me still staring at the empty screen.
"How's it going?" she asked.
"Not bad, not bad," I said. "Hey, did you know the cursor blinks 56 times a minute?"
"Would you like my help?"
The thing is, I don't often drop to my knees and kiss my wife's feet. But this time, it just felt right.
The Funny Practice
My stand-up date was two days away and I had gone over my five minutes of material at least a hundred times — before noon.
Sadly, it didn't sound funny anymore. Nothing was funny. My jokes weren't funny. Writing this article wasn't funny. And I knew the Bad Man was laughing.
I was two days away from making an idiot out of myself. And Lucy was three days away from having another story to tell.
It got so bad that Sunday night I dreamt I was telling jokes to an audience full of salmon.
On Monday morning, my wife kissed me goodbye and said, "Good luck tonight. And relax, you'll be fine. At this point tomorrow, it'll all be over."
I think I either said, "I love you" or "Try the flank steak." One of the two.
The show started at 8 p.m. Lucy told me to be there by 7:15.
Hilarities is your classic stand-up club: a bar off to the side, small round tables, a simple stage and a microphone.
Other than the stage and the microphone, I liked it a lot.
I sat down at the bar and met a couple of the other amateurs, Craig and Noodles. I was almost positive Noodles wasn't his real name.
"So the audience is like, really forgiving, right?" I asked Craig, who said he'd been here before. "I mean, they do know they're here for amateur night, right?"
"It depends," he said. "Here, the audience is usually on your side. I've been at other places, though, where the audience can be brutal. When that happens, that's when you leave the stage and have a shot of whiskey to feel better about yourself."
"Is that all it takes, a shot of whiskey?" I asked. "Why didn't someone tell me this years ago?"
There were eight of us that night: seven men and one woman. I was told I'd be fifth onstage, right after the woman. I went over to wish her luck.
"So, have you done this before?" I asked her.
"Oh no, no, no, this is my first time," she said.
"Honestly, I'm kind of nervous and I don't really know what to expect," she said.
Talking to her was just what I needed, at just the right moment. We had a common bond: fear. And as we shared our mutual fright, it gave us both a sense of comfort and security.
Then, my sweet, unassuming friend had to ruin the whole thing by getting onstage and being good.
Actually, she wasn't just good. She was great. She had the crowd rolling as she told a hilarious story about following a car with a canoe on top down a lonely road in southern Ohio.
She had them in stitches. I was about to put them in traction.
As she finished to a great ovation, my heart raced. I was next.
I knew I couldn't beat her. So I figured I'd do the next best thing.
I'd steal her act.
I walked onstage. I took the microphone. I looked straight into the lights and started talking.
"So," I said, "I was following a car with a canoe on top down a lonely road in southern Ohio..."
The crowd was quiet. Then, miracle of all miracles, everyone laughed.
Five seconds in and I was off the hook. I got my laugh.
The really funny thing is, that one laugh took the edge off. And I was completely relaxed.
For the next four minutes and 55 seconds, I sat back on the stool and rambled. Everything I had memorized just flowed.
It was very similar to diarrhea.
I told a few jokes about my wife:
Y'know, I thank God for my wife every day. She's helped me understand things I never would have if I hadn't met her.
If it wasn't for my wife, I wouldn't have known that I was supposed to wear something nice to an important business meeting last week. Thank God she told me, because I was halfway out the door with a big red wig, clown shoes and an oversized diaper.
I told a few jokes about our kids:
So I used to think I was a good parent, a real role model.
Then, last month, on my birthday, I woke up my son for school. I gently rubbed his back and with a big smile on my face I said, "Do you have something you'd like to say to Dad today?"
He opened his eyes, looked at me and said, "I'm sorry?"
I think that's a bad sign.
And I told a few jokes about my father-in-law:
So my father-in-law is obsessed with Joe DiMaggio. My father-in-law is so obsessed, he can weave Joe DiMaggio into any conversation.
If we're watching an Indians game and the center fielder makes a nice running catch, I'll say, "Nice catch."
He'll say, "Let me tell you something, Joe would've been standing there, pounding his glove, waiting for that ball. He never had to chase a ball like that in his life."
If we're at a birthday party for my nephew, I'll say, "I can't believe Bobby is 14."
He'll say, "I know, he's really getting big, isn't he?" Then he'll pause and say, "Y'know, Joe wasn't that big for as much power as he had. He had 361 lifetime homers."
Finally, my five minutes were up. I was done. Exit stage left. And my career as a stand-up comedian was over.
As I walked off the stage, the audience politely clapped and the owner of Hilarities, Tannous Barakat, came up to me.
"Hey, you did OK," he said. "Pretty good for the first time."
"You can't fool me," I said. "You're just saying that because you want me to write something nice about you and your club."
"That's not true," he replied. "You need to tighten up your material a little bit. But overall, I thought you did good."
"Well gee, thanks."
"You're welcome," he said. "And did I mention we have karaoke every Monday night after the show?"
On the way home, I called my wife.
"How'd it go?" she asked.
"Actually, it went OK," I said. "Believe it or not, they even laughed a couple of times."
"Oh jeez," she said.
"I can hear it in your voice. Now, you're going to think you want to do this."
"No way," I said. "It's too hard. But now that it's over, I have to tell you, I'm glad I did it. It's one of those things I can mark off my list of things to try in life."
"Do you think you can mark 'Clean the garage' off that list anytime soon?" she asked.
As I hung up, I thought about the past week.
I thought about the commitment and passion it would take to truly succeed in this business.
I thought about Craig and Noodles and all the amateurs who walked onto that stage filled with hopes and dreams of greatness.
And I thought about how hard you have to work to make people laugh.
But mostly, I thought, My God, I must really like salmon.